Vladimir Putin: I moonlighted as a taxi driver in the 1990s

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Putin prepares to drive a Lada in the city of Khabarovsk - file photoImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Putin trying out a Lada in the city of Khabarovsk (file photo from 2010)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken of his regret at the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, revealing that he had to work as a taxi driver to supplement his income.

Economic troubles triggered by the collapse forced many Russians to seek new ways to earn money.

Mr Putin described the break-up as the collapse of historical Russia.

The remarks could fuel speculation about his intentions towards Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.

Russia has amassed more than 90,000 troops on its border with Ukraine and there are fears it is planning to invade.

Russia denies this, accusing Ukraine of provocation and seeking guarantees against eastward Nato expansion.

Mr Putin's remarks come from a documentary film called Russia, Latest History, aired on Sunday.

"It was a disintegration of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union," he said, adding that in the West it was believed that the further disintegration of Russia was only a matter of time.

It is well known that Mr Putin views the collapse as a tragedy but his remarks about his personal difficulties at the time are new.

"Sometimes I had to earn extra money," he said. "I mean, earn extra money by car, as a private driver. It's unpleasant to talk about to be honest, but unfortunately that was the case."

At the time, taxis were a rarity in Russia, and many private individuals would give rides to strangers to help make ends meet. Some would even use work vehicles such as ambulances as taxis.

Mr Putin is known to be a former agent of the Soviet security service, the KGB.

However, in the early 1990s he worked in the office of St Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. He maintains that he resigned from the KGB after the August 1991 coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev which led to the break-up of the USSR.

Flagging down the 'bombers'

By Patrick Jackson, BBC News

I did take a bus on its way back to its depot one night but I drew the line at that ambulance... These were just some of the vehicles I found doubling as taxis in 1990s Russia. Every young Russian I knew in Moscow back then seemed to use them and, eventually, every Russian family man with a motor seemed to be moonlighting as a bombila (bomber), the nickname for informal cabbies.

When I first arrived as a student in 1989 there were only two unwritten rules: don't get in a car with more than one person in it and agree the fare before you set off. There just weren't enough official taxis. Usually the biggest risk you ran was causing offense to a macho driver by trying to put on a seat belt.

When the USSR collapsed in 1991 and the rouble lost its value, the informal market mushroomed and you could find yourself being driven by people from all walks of life.

Occasionally I had enlightening conversations with the drivers but often embarrassed silences would descend, maybe because a driver realised he could have charged more after clicking too late that I was a Westerner, but maybe too because they may have been ashamed at having to spend the best years of their lives "bombing" instead of pursuing the careers and lives they had planned for.

Media caption,

Will Putin rule Russia forever? A look at his 20 years in power (video from 2020)